Well, here’s this thing about Jesus and religion.  Or “religion,” depending on where you come down on all this.

If you’ve been anywhere on Facebook the past week, odds are you’ve had the above video thrust upon you.  On Thursday, some 21 of my friends had linked to it.  My very official, highly reliable counting indicated that some 18 of them were positive, and the rest negative or ambivalent.

No need to go into  the content of the video, as there are any number of criticisms out there for you to peruse.  The fellow who made it has turned out to be a decent fellow, and humble to boot.  Turns out if you asked him now, he might say the whole thing a bit more carefully than he did then.  And the church ain’t so bad after all, either, which ought to be welcome relief to us all.

We’re now in the season of political passion for evangelicals, so gird up for the drumbeat of critiques of political idolatry.  Fair enough critiques, most of them, but can we remember a time that our quirky little movement took a single video and spun it into 11 million views in six days?  Neither can I, because it’s never happened.   As my friend Just Taylor pointed out on Twitter, Rob Bell’s little story on hell is still languishing at the 650K mark.  And we thought that was something.

Which is to say, this one struck a chord.  Or rather, pounded it and then played arpeggios with it up and down the keyboard.

A few observations, then, hastily put together and loosely held:

1)  There is a genuine critique of ‘religion’ to be made, and we ought to think through whether making it too quickly is better than not making it at all. Let’s just all remember that a lot of folks out there are ambivalent or hostile to the language of “religion.”  They may be wrong, and perhaps the best thing to do for them is to correct their misperceptions by reframing their understanding of the word.  But “love alters not” sometimes, and emphasizing one aspect of Christianity over and against the others in order to tease out a difference is sometimes a prudent course.  That’s not, contra DeYoung, defining the thing however we want.  Sometimes words get too loaded with meaning to exert the energy to save them, especially when we have viable alternatives at hand.  Jesus may be > religion, but there’s no getting him without practices.  Or rhythms, or habits, or any other baggage-free term we might find.

2)  Evangelicals really, really like telling their friends about Jesus if its in slam poetry form.  The facebook-sharing-missional-force is strong with you all, my friends.

3)  Sometimes, a palate cleanser is good for the religious soul.  Is it possible to use “religious” there neutrally?  Let us try, can we?  There are, when faced with a strong dose of anti-religiosity like this one, several ways to down it.  One would be as a definitive and final statement about evangelicalism that has to be countered immediately by putting together the #teamjesushatesfalsedichotomies band.   The other would be to realize that poetry seems to be given to excess as a medium, and that maybe the video could function as something as a pallet cleanser for those who have been all gummed up by the sort of self-righteous posturing that, I hope we can all grant, exists at points within evangelicalism.

I try to say my morning prayers, well, religiously.  The curious thing is that it frees me for spontaneity of the sort that alters the rhythm, adding a bit of syncopation (if you will) for a season.  And then, I return to the solid center of the “four on the floor,” as the drummers would call it, of regular prayer and Bible reading.  The church calendar is a good example:  steady enough to include difference within it.  Any regular Christian practice will be.

4)  At the same time, let’s recognize that balance is a friend, not an enemy, and that miscommunication isn’t a part of a fallen world.  A few tweets to this effect came through this weekend, one from Justin Holcomb and the other I cannot remember from whom.  But palate cleansers only get you so far, and eventually you’ll need a meal–preferably meat, not milk.  You’ll find yourself in the land of nuance, balance, and the rest of it, and may even join old Tommy Aquino in shouting out a “Distinguo!” or two with as much gusto as you can muster.  Distinctions, avoiding false dilemmas, historical accuracy–they may not be the only thing that folks need, but they’ll need ’em eventually if we want folks to grow up.

And not all failures to communicate are sinful failures, because not all muddles are moral.  The inability to speak well, to think well, is not intrinsically a vice–use the gifts that you’ve been given, and all that.  But neither does that excuse us from the responsibility of accuracy, and as my friend John Dyer put it, we ought not all strive to be slam poets.

5)  The real problem is that this is a palate cleanser for people whose tastes have never been trained.  This is, I think, a symptom of the sort of problem that I pointed out in my interaction with Jared Wilson’s book:  had we all the sort of structures and habits that were able to deepen our understanding of the Gospel once we’ve gained it, well, I’d be more chipper about this video.  But we don’t, and therein lies a problem.

The paradox, of course, is that it’s the absence of those elements that commonly constitute “religion” that breed the sort of self-righteousness that the fellow’s critiquing.  Try praying on a regular basis, or even getting a little crazy and fasting, and you’ll soon discover what the ancients called “weakness of will.”  Which is a vice, and a bad one.  It is, however, a vice forgiven by Jesus, who helps us turn the whole thing around.  But if self-righteousness is the sort of pervasive home-grown problem for evangelicals that the video suggests, we might want to think long and hard about its sources, and see if rather slack standards for discipleship are themselves part of the problem.

6)  Form matters.  Which is why I’m calling for an “Occupy Owen Strachan’s blog” until he offers a rap-alternative to all this.  And I’m only half joking.

Update:  Thanks to a reader for pointing out the rather silly and obvious spelling error.  It’s been corrected.  When I said “hastily put together,” I clearly meant it!

 

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

5 Comments

  1. I think it is instructive to note the response of those outside Christianity. The Amazing Atheist is probably an outlier on that spectrum but his (content warning: typically profane) response was exactly what I thought it would be. See http://youtu.be/yBo7Z_abiLE

    Basically he says: yeah – I hate Christianity too and you’re an idiot if you think you can be a Christian without being religious.

    The problem is that the video is using an implicitly *religious* definition of religion – “religion” is the law, or hypocrisy, or perhaps legalism and tradition.

    Non-religious people who think about it will think you are nuts if you say you love the Church, believe the Bible, love Jesus but are not a religious person and religion is bad. And by the rest you are assumed to be spiritual-but-not-religious so that the specificity of Jesus becomes irrelevant. As a piece of outreach for Jesus this video fails because it falls into the evangelical trap of talking to the world using language that is only intelligible to the churched.

    Reply

    1. Matthew Lee Anderson January 16, 2012 at 6:41 pm

      Simeon,

      Whooo, that video is fun! Dude makes a number of good points, albeit strongly worded.

      That said, you raise a good point about it staying within language that is only intelligible to the churched. Some of these things, though, are pedagogical: we might start, for instance, a conversation by distancing ourselves from a particular (debased) meaning of religion by not using the word in order to keep the conversation going along, and then at the end of it go about rehabilitating the concept if at all necessary.

      For instance, if someone asks me on a plane whether I’m “religious,” should we own it out of the gate? What if they hate everything having to do with religion? It may be best to get that up on the surface at the get-go, but if I can probe a little deeper and ask what he means by “religious,” I’ll almost always end up distancing myself from it.

      Which is to say, when people mean “religious” they often have connotations in mind that are more like the “false religion” than the true. At least in my experience (and, I presume, the experience of the guy in the video).

      Matt

      Reply

  2. Some crude definitions to orient myself:

    Religion1 – beliefs about God or God-related things
    Religion2 – rituals, practices, singing, fasting, etc.
    Religion3 – not the gospel, what happens when self-righteous humans try to please God for their own benefit

    I actually kind of liked Bethke’s video and I took it as a Tim Keller-esque critique of Religion3 (especially the last couple verses). I think many Christians who saw the video probably interpreted “religion” as Religion2. There are some hints in the video that he’s not too found of Religion2 (“long list of chores”), but for the most part I think he avoided it.

    Most atheists I’ve encountered equate the core of religion with Religion1 and say that Religion2 is a nice, personal thing people can do on Sundays if they like but it doesn’t really get at the core of religion is. This is why the video made no sense to atheists, because even after talking about all that other stuff, it doesn’t change the fact that he still believes in God.

    Reply

  3. I’m always impressed at the ease of your articulation, even in a hastily put together post. Thank you for this- very well crafted.

    Reply

    1. Matthew Lee Anderson February 9, 2012 at 10:53 pm

      Heh. Thanks, Nicole! Really appreciate that!

      Reply

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